Sanctuary findings amid pandemic

A mask left on a sign in D’Aguilar National Park.

Amelia Nickles-Ralph looks at the effects COVID-19 has had on Australia’s national parks

With hundreds of national parks covering about four per cent of our nation, Australia has no end of diverse natural beauty. And it’s no secret that being outdoors has benefits for any individual’s physical and mental health.

Research from Queensland’s Griffith University suggests that Australia’s national parks have an annual health service value total of $145 billion a year. How? The team utilised a concept called ‘quality-adjusted life years’ to assess almost 20,000 participants in Queensland and Victoria for the ability to partake in daily life pain free and without mental disturbance.

In doing so, they discovered a link between national parks and an individual’s mental health, overall estimating that the costs of treatment would rise astronomically annually without these sanctuaries.

It is well documented that COVID-19 has had massive mental health impacts on all Australians. Whether it is stress about employment, education, health (of themselves or family members), lockdowns, or distance from family, the pandemic has impacted the way we all live our day-to-day lives.

However, what has been the effect of the impacts of COVID-19 on Aussies’ relationship with national parks? Did people seek refuge in national parks, or did lockdowns affect visitation numbers? How were rangers influenced?

David Henke is a Senior National Park Ranger in Western Australia. In a normal year, David would see around 600,000 people through WA parks, with around 65 per cent international visitors. However, at the end of 2020 and into January 2021, only about seven vehicles per day were coming through Nambung National Park, one of the most popular in the state.

In some ways, these low numbers have been a blessing for David and the eight rangers who work for him. As a result, they have had significantly more time to allocate to general maintenance (such as painting) as well as grading walking tracks, and this has enabled them to tick off a lot of goals.

As movement restrictions within Australia became more relaxed towards the end of 2020, domestic tourism within WA parks definitely picked up, and David notes this has had a particularly positive impact on nearby towns.

In South Australia, there was a 77 per cent spike in park entry numbers from December 2019 to December 2020 compared to the previous year, with a total of 28,298 people visiting regional parks. However, it is likely that excludes international visitors and only suggests a rise in local visitation numbers.

Higher than the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Uluru is arguably Australia’s most famous natural attraction and was soaring in popularity exponentially around the world before the pandemic. According to analysis done by rangers, in the two-year period between 2017 and 2019, visitors to Uluru increased by 134 per cent. This peaked in 2019 with a record tally of 406,840 people.

Uluru had the quietest time in 35 years in 2020 with a slump to 93,826 people setting eyes on the massive red monolith. While it must be acknowledged that this decrease was likely significantly impacted by the climbing ban enacted in October 2019, the pandemic also had an unprecedented effect.

During this period, the Mutitjulu Community Ranger Program continued to focus its work but employees in the cultural centre were rostered in different regions of the park. Staff were not able to visit Mutitjulu, a nearby Indigenous community – the region was only open to residents.

Unprecedented park closures have resulted in significant challenges for tourism, but more specifically, in national parks. Significantly less commercial tour operators are operating in Uluru in comparison to 2019.

Uluru is 450km by road to Alice Springs. The question is, has COVID-19 had a similar impact on more accessible national parks?

Wallabies on the beach at Cape Hillsborough at sunrise.

In more heavily populated areas like Royal National Park near Sydney and Lamington National Park (within two hours of Brisbane), seasoned bushwalkers are reporting that a significant number of new people are embracing the outdoor lifestyle. Dianne began to fully appreciate national parks after coronavirus. She says: “I am new to multi-day hiking in our beautiful country. My husband and I are so respectful in our surrounds. We are quiet and leave the smallest footprint everywhere we go.”

For many, the pandemic has been a prompt to either go back to their roots or begin to explore the wilderness areas we are so privileged to have accessible in Australia.

Many seasoned explorers say that the upturn in numbers has encouraged them to look further afield and devise longer routes in lesser-known locations. Guides have also reported that while the trend is great for work, this makes it difficult finding different locations for group weekends in national parks.

However, repeated observations that most new hikers seem ill-prepared on longer day walks, evidence of fires in places they are prohibited, and that there has been a significant rise in rubbish, graffiti and track degeneration cannot be ignored. Education on ‘leave no trace’ principles and how to prepare for all situations in the bush may need to be driven beyond the classic signs at most trailheads in order to adapt to an influx of new visitors.

One of the more substantial impacts on all visitors to national parks since the start of COVID-19 is the need to pre-book all campsites and in some cases, outline trip intentions prior to overnight camping. This enables parks services to monitor the numbers of people entering or leaving the park, analyse higher visitation periods and keep track of movement for safety.

As sites are still so cheap to reserve online, it appears often people book to keep their options open and then forget to cancel if they choose not to go. As one hiker reports: “We were the only people in one camp and our friends almost didn’t come because the website showed it to be booked out for the holidays.”

Overall, COVID-19 has affected a range of national parks in differing ways. In more urban areas, visitors have flocked to these retreats, but for more internationally famous places like Uluru, numbers have drastically decreased. This is most likely due their distance from neighbouring towns and the bans on international travel.

It is clear that COVID-19 offers an opportunity for some park processes to be adapted and facilities upgraded. Regardless, these widespread sanctuaries remain an integral escape for Australians, particularly through the pandemic.

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